Hundreds flee new fighting in North Kivu; UNHCR closes small office
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 3 (UNHCR) - Some 300 frightened Congolese on Monday streamed into a shuttered site for internally displaced people (IDPs) near the provincial capital of Goma after fresh fighting erupted in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. They said up to 1,000 more were on their way to the Lac Vert site, some 10 kilometres west of Goma.
The flight of IDPs from the Sake area, some 30 kilometres west of Goma in volatile North Kivu province, came after the UN refugee agency withdrew its staff from a new office in the town of Rutshuru on Saturday and suspended assistance and protection operations for some 45,000 displaced people in the area due to the worsening security situation. The field office opened last month.
On Saturday, UNHCR tried to move some 2,500 IDPs from public buildings in the centre of Rutshuru to a newly-developed site at Dumez, just outside the town. But the operation was called off on Sunday when fighting broke out in nearby areas after just 295 IDPs had been transferred.
The weekend outbreaks of fighting around the province between government troops, rebels and renegade forces, could signal the start of a widely-predicted government offensive in the region.
The build-up of military forces and repeated clashes in North Kivu over the past year have led to the worst internal displacement in the area since the end of the civil war in 2003. Some 405,000 Congolese have been forced to leave their homes in the province during that time, including about 170,000 since August. There are more than 800,000 IDPs in the province.
As Congolese civilians fled Monday towards Lac Vert, there were unconfirmed reports that thousands more were fleeing from fighting that flared Sunday in Rutshuru's Nyanzale area and heading towards the town of Kanyabayonga, some 10 kms to the north.
By early afternoon Monday, a first group of about 300 IDPs had arrived at Lac Vert - a site under rehabilitation by UNHCR and non-governmental organizations after the transfer last month of more than 10,000 IDPs to other camps in the area.
They told UNHCR staff that up to 1,000 more people were on the way to the site, which lies on the edge of Virunga National Park. "Some people stopped on the way because they were too tired," said a 65-year-old woman.
The IDPs said they were woken at dawn on Monday by the sound of heavy artillery fire and had immediately taken to the road. The new arrivals, mostly women and children carrying small bundles of belongings, looked shaken and tired after the long trek from Sake.
The women said many of their male relatives had opted to remain in Sake to look after their property but would leave if the fighting intensified. On Monday afternoon, UNHCR teams had begun registering the new IDPs and were preparing transport to take them to other sites.
UNHCR is transferring the newly arrived to other camps because the environment at Lac Vert is not suitable for habitation and needs refurbishment. "With all the agencies, international NGOs and government officials we are relocating the new arrivals to sites where the environment is appropriate," said Germaine Bationo, leader of the UNHCR emergency response team in Goma.
Marcelin Hepie, UNHCR's deputy representative in Goma, added: "All the four sites in the Goma area are about to reach maximum capacity. With the intensification of fighting on different fronts, we need sites to host new arrivals in desperate need of security. But what we need is for the guns to fall silent. What we need most is peace."
By David Nthengwe in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo